No respite in sight for Jalingo after 168 days in prison
Gov. Ayade contradicts self on Jalingo’s travails
For over 168 days, the publisher of an online newspaper, CrossRiverWatch, politician, and human rights activist, Comrade Agba Jalingo, has been incarcerated in Calabar. He always comes to court handcuffed and in prisons’ pick up van, dressed in blue jeans and grey-coloured shoes and black t-shirt, with the inscription ‘Dictators perpetually fear our pens’. Armed security agents guard him to ensure no escape for a man whose ‘weapon’ is the pen as the premises of the Federal High Court, Calabar, has a swarm of amour trucks and anti-riot tanks as if Boko Haram has relocated to Calabar.
However, what has characterized the trial of Jalingo so far has been the apparent contradiction on the part of Governor Ben Ayade and his government over the exact nature of Jalingo’s offence and trial. While only recently in Abuja Ayade denied his involvement in his trial, his Attorney-General, Tanko Ashang, has admitted that Cross River State was behind Jalingo’s trial for treason. Ashang informed the court that the state government was taking over the prosecution of Jalingo and had informed Justice Simon Amobeda who presides over Court 2 of the Calabar division of the Federal High Court that a letter to that effect had been filed and is in the records of the court.
This development has eventually put paid to speculations as to who had been behind Mr. Jalingo’s arrest and incarceration for 169 days running even though the state governor, Ayade, and his aids had severally denied claims from different organisations and individuals that he and the state were behind the journalist’s ordeal.
In one of the trials, there were protests by friends, relatives, and colleagues of Jalingo, who the release of Jalingo with placards reading: ‘#Free Jalingo now,’ ‘Dictators perpetually fear our pens,’ ‘Journalism not a crime,’ ‘Free the press,’ ‘Jalingo performed his constitutional duty.’
Before now both men who are from the same Obudu Local Government Area were like 5-&-6, but their relationship later went awry and Governor of Cross River State, Ben Ayade, soon developed zero tolerance for Jalingo’s criticisms. Some of the critical issues Jalingo alleged in his write-ups against Ayade include an article demanding that the government should explain the whereabouts of the N500 million approved and released for the floating of the wobbling Cross River Microfinance Bank.
Jalingo, who is a member of the opposition African Acton Congress (AAC), also asked the state government to explain how N14.5 billion said to be in government’s coffers was spent within three months last year and wondered why such huge sum of money would come to the state while the governor would still borrow money. Other issues Jalingo raised against Ayade were the proposed Obudu Cargo and Passenger Airport and Ayade’s diesel-driven power project, which he described as “a hoax”.
These issues might have incensed Ayade to move against Jalingo as he (Ayade) was quoted to have said in a reference to Jalingo before his arrest while delivering an address at the opening of the Green Carnival event on July 30, 2019, “In Cross River, a man who is begging and does not get what he wants becomes a journalist and starts blackmailing the state. That is not journalism. Unfortunately, the period of blackmail is over. The period of writing nonsense and earning a living is over, because no matter what you write, you don’t change the truth.”
Not too long after this statement, the Police Command in Cross River State, in a letter dated August 14, 2019 titled “Conspiracy To Cause Breach of Public Peace” and signed by Mrs. Tami Peterside, a Deputy Commissioner of Police in charge of the State Criminal Investigation Department, invited Jalingo to report to her office on August 19, 2019 at 2:00pm for an interview in respect of a publication concerning Cross River Micro Finance Bank in July.
Jalingo was arrested in his Lagos residence on August 22, 2019 and was driven to Calabar by road where he is now facing trial being presided over by Justice Simon Amobeda, who has denied him bail twice. He was eventually handed four-count charges bordering on terrorism, treasonable felony, cultism and attempt to topple Cross River State Government preferred against him by the prosecuting counsel, Mr. Dennis Tarhemba. Jalingo risks getting death sentence if convicted.
He spent 34 days in police custody before he was arraigned in court on September 25, 2019 and has remained in prison custody for 134 days. In all, he has spent 168 days in incarceration as time of this report. The matter, which has suffered several adjournments, saw Justice Amobeda ruling that witnesses would testify behind curtains in a cubicle and to a camera. The defendant and his counsel would also not be privy to the name, alias or any other details of the witness.
Worried about this development, Jalingo’s counsel, Mr. Adeyinka Olumide-Fusika, told the court that his submissions were “mis-characterized” and that the only inference he could draw from the demeanor of the prosecution counsel (Tarhemba) was that there was a communication between the court and the prosecution and he was not confident that a secret trial would bring justice, especially as there would be no independent recording of court’s proceedings. James Ibor and Attah Ochinke are other counsels to Jalingo in the matter.
Several persons like Mr . Femi Falana, organizations like Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), and Association of Cross River Online Journalists (ACROJ) have alleged that Governor Ayade is the brain behind Jalingo’s travails but his Special Adviser Media and Publicity, Mr. Christian Ita, has denied the governor’s involvement.
The NUJ leadership in the state has been accused by Amnesty International and others of not showing concern with Jalingo’s case, but the state’s NUJ Chairman, Mr. Victor Udu, in reaction, told The Guardian on the telephone, “I have been in the media for sometime now. Everybody feels it is to go to the streets and shout about Agba Jalingo, but I choose my own style of negotiation, which is different from what everybody thinks he is doing. I am in touch with the necessary people and we have been talking to see that that guy gets out of that place.
“I have been accused of not being concerned about him and I take that as a leader but to say NUJ Cross River State has not done anything to get Agba out of that place is a big lie… If they think their own method of negotiation is so good why is he still there if they think we are not doing anything? It is one thing to sit down, make noise, shout and say a lot of stupid things. If I were to follow Agba the way he decided to follow NUJ, I won’t do anything, because I invited them on four occasions for a meeting to see how they can integrate into the mainstream of this practice, they refused and went and formed their own body and went ahead undermining the union in several ways. But I am not looking at that. I will still use the method I have been using and talk to the people I’m supposed to talk with that I know are in the background of whatever is going on to see that that guy is out of that place”.
Disturbed that he would not have fair trial under Justice Amobeda, Jalingo had petitioned the Chief Judge of the state’s Federal High Court, Justice John Tsoho to reassign his case to another judge, saying that after considering the contents of a leaked audio involving the presiding judge in his case, “it became clear that justice may not be done”. In view of this, Justice Amobeda recused himself from the matter and referred the case file to the Administrative Judge of the Division, Justice Sule Shuaibu. The matter has not been reassigned yet.
However, while opening up for the first time on the Jalingo case with some newsmen in Abuja recently after producing two video tapes, Governor Ayade said, “I am of the opinion that Agba should be released because I think he was just youthfully excited. If you ask Agba Jalingo today, I am the one working with his lawyers for his freedom. I’m the one sustaining him and sending upkeeps… In court, it is Federal Government versus Agba Jalingo, not Cross River State.
He is in court for treason. A state does not have the power to try anyone for treason; it is not me as his arrest and trial are in connection with Omoyele Sowore’s #RevolutionNow protest.”Ayade also accused Jalingo of being a blackmailer, saying Jalingo also previously falsely accused a former governor of the state and his wife of child trafficking.
But a former governorship candidate of Peoples Progressive Alliance (PPA), Mr. Goddie Akpama, has faulted Ayade’s claims saying, “I think I have come to the conclusion that the detention of Jalingo is based on your prompting, and not from the Federal Government, as you want the world to believe based on what you said recently when you visited Aso Rock. You claimed the police are Federal Government institution, hence Jalingo is being tried by the Federal Government. Having said that, you should have stopped at that if you were not directly responsible!
“It is because you are directly responsible; that is why you went further to tell the world your grievances with him, and how he has been a blackmailer, a politician, a businessman and so on… Don’t forget that the initial charge sheet in court contains allegations relating to the said N500m publication, and allegation that Agba Jalingo wanted to overthrow your government”.
On the second video, Akpama said Ayade completely exonerated Agba Jalingo of the earlier allegation that he is a blackmailer and that a former governor and even his wife were involved over the issue of child trafficking and that the governor did it with clear conscience and retracted his words when he eventually realised he’d goofed.
Human rights group, Amnesty International has said the Federal Government and Cross River State Government were manipulating the Nigerian criminal justice system to repress dissenting voices in violation of the 1999 constitution as amended as well as international and regional human rights treaties and protocols.
Media Manager of Amnesty International, Mr. Sanusi Isa, in a press conference on Thursday in Calabar, said, “While Agba Jalingo is detained for his critical opinions, both Cross River and the Federal Government are collaborating, through the manipulation of the criminal justice system to keep him behind bars… Jalingo’s trial falls short of international standards of fairness, especially because the court has allowed witnesses to be masked and the trial to be held in secret.“Governor Ben Ayade of Cross River State and the government of President Muhammadu Buhari must stop filing bogus and politically motivated charges against critics and start listening to what they have to say”.